Although Duke lost 38-35 on Saturday to Georgia Tech, quarterback Daniel Jones took another step in his maturation process.
The redshirt freshman nearly brought the Blue Devils (3-5, 0-4 ACC) back from a 21-point deficit with a strong second half and showed why he could be the next in the line of successful quarterbacks developed by coach David Cutcliffe.
“It’s very rare that you start a game off the way we did and the outcome ends up being the way you want it,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m excited to see this team grow. We’ll study this and learn what we need to do better and learn what we’re doing exceptionally well and who’s doing it.”
Jones completed 22 of 36 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia Tech (5-3, 2-3). It was the third time he has surpassed 300 yards passing. The Devils generated 559 yards of total offense. Jones had gone two games without throwing an interception before getting picked off early in the second half on Saturday.
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“It’s been pretty interesting watching this team grow and adjust each week,” Cutcliffe said.
Jones was especially effective throwing the ball on third down in the second half. He completed a pass on 5 of 6 third-down plays in the second. The two biggest connections came in the fourth quarter, a 13-yard completion on third-and-3 to extend a drive and a 7-yarder to Daniel Helm for a touchdown that gave the Blue Devils a 35-31 lead after trailing 28-7 at the half.
“The quarterback, he throws the ball well when you protect him,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “He made some big plays in the second half.”
The only times Jones failed was on Duke’s final possession. He missed on a third-and-3 at the Duke 32 and forced the Blue Devils to punt, even though they trailed 38-35. Duke was unable to get the ball back, and Georgia Tech ran out the clock.
Jones also showed he could run the ball. The Georgia Tech defense was almost daring Jones to run it, so it did. He carried 10 times for a career-best 74 yards.
Jones may be able to gain some perspective from watching Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas. The senior ran for 195 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He engineered the winning drive, which culminated in his 21-yard touchdown pass to running back Clinton Lynch with 5:38 remaining, and the final possession that allowed the Yellow Jackets to run out the clock.
“You have to look at Justin Thomas and say he might have had his finest hour,” Cutcliffe said. “He played like a senior. That’s what I told him after the game. They did what they had to do to win the game at the end.”
It looks like the Blue Devils will be going the rest of the season without running back Jela Duncan. The senior sustained an unspecified injury on Saturday after he ran 10 times for 52 yards and two touchdowns.